Why George Michael turned his back on America

American flag

George Michael found success quickly in the US, briefly eclipsing even superstars such as Michael Jackson and Madonna at the tail end of the 1980s.

But his experience and life in America were soured by a fight with his record label and arrest in a public bathroom that forced him to come out as a gay man.

As a solo artist and with Wham!, the singer collected 10 No 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, including Faith, Father Figure, One More Try and Careless Whisper, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Everything She Wants.

Over on the albums charts, Wham! claimed a No 1 with its breakthrough album Make It Big, while Michael led the list as a soloist with Faith, spending 12 weeks in the top spot in 1988.

As the Rolling Stone writer Greg Pond noted that year: “He is only 24 –three years younger than Prince, five years younger than Michael Jackson, and outselling both of them. He is ridiculously famous; he has more money than he can spend. And for most of his brief career, he has had virtually no artistic credibility.”

I Knew You Were Waiting, his duet with Aretha Franklin in 1987, earned him a Grammy award for best R&B performance. But it was his first solo album, Faith, released in 1987, which catapulted him to true American superstardom.

That album’s first single, I Want Your Sex, was banned by some radio stations, adding to its appeal. US radio host Casey Kasem would not say the song’s name on the air.

Faith spent 51 non-consecutive weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard 200, eventually selling more than 10m copies, and won album of the year at the Grammys in 1989.

But Michael’s fortunes soon began to slip. He believed his record label Sony had not sufficiently promoted Faith’s follow-up, Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1. Michael’s label complained that the David Fincher-directed video for Freedom 90, while featuring emerging supermodels Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, did not feature the singer, causing the album to perform poorly compared with its predecessor.

George Michael: singer, songwriter, pop superstar, dies aged 53

In 1992, Michael went to court in an attempt to break free from his recording contract. He later explained he was “trying to get myself into a situation where I worked with a company that had some respect for me”.

But he lost the case, which had prevented him from releasing any new material for two years, and was obliged to pay Sony $30m -$40m (£24m-£33m) to release him.

The dispute put him in the same situation as Prince, who was also mounting a high-profile campaign against his label at the time. Prince reportedly kept phoning Michael during the trial. “I just never rung him back. We weren’t exactly in the same boat. All I really wanted to say to him was, ‘Wipe that fucking word [‘slave’] off your cheek, you’re not exactly doing me any favours’,” Michael said.

Despite making new deals with Virgin in Britain and DreamWorks in America that gave him the artistic freedom he craved, Michael had trouble coming up with new material.

He told friends that it did not matter that he had signed with Geffen, run by a prominent gay executive and founder David Geffen, because the music industry functioned as an old boys’ club, its contracts based on those used to tie stars to studios.

“It was part of the reason he turned his back on America,” recalls Kim Bowen, a close friend of the singer who before his death was announced had been opening Christmas presents for her children sent by the singer.

According to Bowen, his arrest in 1998 for engaging in a lewd act in a public restroom in Beverly Hills and the subsequent response changed his view of the country. “He was such a fabulous, truthful gay man and he loved America, but when all the stuff went down he was just over it,” says Bowen, who styled the Outside video. “America had loved him so much, I think it really broke his heart.”

But the star’s tribulations were a source of strength for many gay men and women, Bowen believes.

“His coming out, which he did not plan and was not managed by any publicity machine, was a very painful thing for him. But the way he handled it, and the way he braved it, and the way he made it all right for them, empowered a generation of young men.”

That may turn out to be Michael’s true legacy in the US. He sold his house in Beverly Hills and visited only sporadically. In 2008, Michael appeared in the TV series Eli Stone and performed on American Idol in 2008. He released a new track called December Song in the same year and in 2011 participated in James Corden’s first Carpool Karaoke with a cover version of New Order’s 1987 hit True Faith.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Edward Helmore, for theguardian.com on Monday 26th December 2016 09.50 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010